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Mr. Fortune's Maggot; and, The Salutation by Sylvia Townsend Warner
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's review
Jun 28, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction-mainstream
Read in June, 2012

MR. FORTUNE’S MAGGOT. (1927). Sylvia Townsend Warner. ****. (Also contains the novella, “The Salutation”)
Right off, I’d have to say that this is a strange book. It’s topic is missionary work on a Pacific Island, but that’s about as close as you could come to classifying it. Before page 1, the author offers the following: “Maggot. 2. A whimsical or perverse fancy; a crotchet.” Now you can get those squigly things out of your mind. This was Ms. Warner’s second book, after Lolly Willows (see my earlier blurb), and was less successful with her readers – probably because it deals with difficult subjects. Mr. Fortune is a Reverend within a missionary body based on a large Pacific Island. He decides that he really needs to do some missionary work on his own at some location that is still virgin territory. He has himself shipped off to Fanua, an island that is a mere speck in the water, and has not been chosen by any other religious man to date. He packs enough stuff to last for one year. When he arrives at the island, he is greeted by a host of the natives. All of them are essentially naked and constantly laughing. He meets the chief and explains himself; the chief agrees to let him alone but will be happy to provide anything he might need while on the island. As he explores the island looking for a place to set up his home, he meets a young native boy, Lueli. Lueli is a good looking boy who, like the rest of the islanders, is constantly happy and laughing. Mr. Fortune decides to give him the Christian name of Theodore while he is there. Language is often a problem, but soon the two are communicating freely. Then Mr. Fortune begins to teach the boy his catechism, which he quickly picks up. Fortune is happy that he is able to develop a convert so early. Since the natives don’t seem to work – other than fishing and hunting – Fortune tries to find out what their native religion is. What he learns is that each of the islanders has his or her own individual god, a god that is carried with them and worshiped in their own ways. He finally discovers that Lueli has been secretely worshiping his god – a wooden statue – at a shrine off in the jungle, while pretending to be converting to Christianity. This sets off a struggle between the two that ends badly for Fortune. He comes to a realization: “I’d had a poor, meager, turnpike sort of life until I came here and found Lueli. I loved him, he was a refreshment to me, my only pleasant surprise. He was perfect because he was a surprise. I had done nothing to win him, he was entirely gratuitous. I had had no hand in him. I could no more have imagined him beforehand than I could have imagined a new kind of flower. So what did I do? I started interfering. I made him a Christian, or thought I did. I taught him to do this and not to do the other. I checked him. I fidgeted over him. And because I loved him so for what he was I could not spend a day without trying to alter him.” This and other realizations that came to Fortune during his stay on the island made him aware that preaching to convert was wrong. This is a fine novel that truly examines the principles of religion and how they should not be used. THE SALUTATION (1932), was a novella written by Ms. Warner and intended to be the lead story in a collection of short pieces. It picks up the life of Mr. Fortune after his island experience. This time, he has ended up in Brazil at the home of a Ms. Angustias Bailey, an old woman who runs the house out there in the jungle. Mr. Fortune has become a very contemplative man, and begins to use what he learned on the island in his response to life. This piece is also interesting, but tamer, since Fortune is a changed man. Both works are well worth the read. Recommended.

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